By: Bill Coultas

To the Ray Guy Outharbour Juvenile fashion meant something dramatically different from what one would expect. You cut a fine figure if you had breeks modeled after a Mountie, an aviator cap inspired by Charles Lindbergh, and Scandanavian logans. You were the real ‘I am’.

This year marks the 50th Anniversary of the Craft Council of Newfoundland and Labrador. At a time when many small businesses including craft related ones across the country, have had to fold, the Craft Council in this province is still going strong. While the pandemic slowed, delayed and closed some activities, many continued through in-person, curb side pickup, or on-line sales, gallery exhibitions, artists talks and workshops. Craft Council NL has seen steady, incremental success over the past many years. That is because of good stewardship, committed staff and volunteers, and an organization that promotes a wide variety of product that epitomizes professionalism, polish and panache.

And fashion.

In this province Barry Buckle is often identified with the modern image we have of fashion design. He has been involved in the fashion industry for over thirty years and has worked in a variety of countries for a variety of companies. His focus was like any young, like-minded designer, aiming for the top of his industry. But as time wore on, Barry began to realize that in working for large companies you lose some of your own personal creativity. It’s an old story. You’re a small cog in a big machine. So, in 1998 he returned to Newfoundland. Though it was a financial challenge for a few years, Barry quickly found endless inspiration in his home province. His creativity blossomed and new personal doors opened up. Today Barry is firmly established as a clothes designer, as are other entities who make their living from construction and design.

The late 90s was also a time when the craft industry here was undergoing its own struggles. For so many years crafts people were producing items like sweaters, socks, mittens and the like, that if not underappreciated, were usually underpriced. You could get a hooked rug for a song. That was never more evident, than it was to Frances and Maxine Ennis when they decided to take up rug hooking. As it is with many crafts, they started simply for the love of it, and were inspired by the works of some older women like Louise Belbin of Grand Bank. Also, there was a revival among women who came together in 1994 for a workshop on Change Islands to ensure the cherished tradition of rug hooking would not fade away.

But there was a problem and it had to do with attitude. It takes a lot of work to hook a rug (or produce any fine craft), and the Newfoundland public weren’t ready to pay for something they could get in the past for much a lower price. Collecting the material, creating a unique design, picking out the right colours and doing the actual hooking all took time and expertise. Frances and Maxine weren’t willing to compromise. They demanded a fair price for their work. At first people balked at the expense but over time people came to realize the art and beauty of the hooked rug. Nowadays you certainly wouldn’t put that kind of rug on the floor. It went on the wall and proudly displayed as if it was a painting by one of the provinces best.

In many ways that aspect defines one of the differences between then and now. To exhibit or sell in connection with the Craft Council you have to go through ‘Standards’, meaning the bar is set high. Anne Manuel, former Executive Director of Craft Council, notes that the difference from then to now is that crafts are “…. more polished, more diverse in technique, materials and design.” But ‘Standards’ was never intended to exclude, rather its purpose is to fulfill a more positive role. “It was always intended to offer advice and guidance to enable craft people to make the best possible products they could and thus be able to demand the price that only a high-quality product can warrant. The better the quality the better the return to the craft person.”

It's not easy under any circumstances to be self employed as a craft person but help is indeed available. The Craft Council of Newfoundland and Labrador was, and continues to be instrumental in the creation and continuation of the Anna Templeton Centre, The Plantation and The Clay Studio. Artisan/educator Susan Furneaux says, “More and more students are staying and building a career right after their graduation. I think it is a testament to the quality of the Textile and Apparel Design Program that gives the curriculum and the education required for a successful future. The Quidi Vidi Plantation also is a part of the equation to success. It offers a ‘work term’ of sorts to our graduates that I feel is much more beneficial than paper for those who do not want to take an academic path.”

When you look around your home or apartment chances are that you possess a piece of pottery, an item of clothing or a unique provincial product that has been crafted by a graduate of one of those institutions. Along with the physical, hands on aspect, those organizations provide business courses and support, professional development opportunities and contacts to professional organizations. In the mix, close contact with other artisans usually occurs. There is no doubt that that is an important ingredient in the development of skills. Feedback in anyone’s books is usually a good thing.

And if you are still wondering how fashion and craft meet you need not look any further than the recent success of Christine LeGrow and Shirley Scott. Boulder Books published their detailed offering of Newfoundland traditional mitten designs. It was a runaway best seller which in turn lead to the publication of two similar type books as sequels. “Yes, hand knit mittens, gloves, trigger mitts and wristies are definitely considered fashionable. They are purchased in a variety of styles, colours, and fibres to match fashionable outwear of all types.” says Shirley Scott.

“The success of the books was a total surprise,” continued Chrisrtine. “At first, both Shirley and I wanted to get the traditional patterns from Newfoundland mittens printed in book form for future generations of knitters.” Another surprise was how much technology played a role once the book got out into the marketplace. From its publication “…we have presented Zoom presentations sponsored by yarn stores. Facebook groups discuss the books and knits. Podcasts of other craft people and wool shops have featured and/or discussed our books and presented knit-a-longs of our patterns. We receive emails and Facebook messages from all over here, the rest of Canada, US, European countries. A teacher at a school in Australia purchased copies for her students.”

Of the four categories designated by the Atlantic Canada Craft Awards for Excellence, three were captured by this provinces craft people. Excellence in Product Design was won by Christine LeGrow and Shirley Scott, the Outstanding Retailer award went to the Craft Council of Newfoundland and Labrador for their Shop and Pantry outlets, and last and far from least Outstanding Exporter went to Megan Jackman, owner of Ragmaw.

Those awards show how local craft people take a front row seat with the best world-wide. Hooked rugs, originally designed purses, Labrador inspired coat products, sweaters, pottery, jewelry, stain glass, as well as, locally made sea salt, herbs, spices, tea, coffee all have stepped outside of the local market. The international audience has found that the Newfoundland and Labrador sense of fashion, design and high-quality, lines up with international appeal.

Rowena House, executive director of the Craft Council of Newfoundland and Labrador, noted that the pre pandemic revenue figure for provincial crafts was 33.6 million with growth expected to hit 41 million by 2022. From one year to the next progress is very notable. And Rowena sees no end in sight.

Pretty impressive figures by any standard.

And no doubt fashionable. Wouldn’t you say?

Published in SALTSCAPES magazine – Halifax, NS